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The growth of radical Islam in Central Asia

Recent reports
Prior to the recent terror attacks in Uzbekistan which claimed at least 19 lives, a spate of reports from the region shows ongoing Islamist activity and law-enforcement efforts to contain it. One report details the state of affairs in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other reports suggest that Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation - HT), an organization that now stands at the center of concerns over rising Islamist activity in Central Asia, is increasingly tailoring its recruiting efforts to match local dynamics in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, targeting individuals from the dominant ethnic group with a higher education and ties to state institutions.

In Tajikistan, the authorities arrested a group of HT activists in Khujand in February. Various reports placed the number of individuals detained between 14 and 22., an independent Internet publication funded by George Soros' Open Society foundation, reported on February 25 that the men were all aged 20-22 and from middle-class families. Moreover, they were all ethnic Tajiks "whose parents came from the most 'Tajik of regions' of southern Tajikistan". Previously, ethnic Uzbeks and Uzbek citizens from the Ferghana Valley had figured prominently in reports of HT activity in Tajikistan. Asia Plus-Blitz also reported that three of the activists were relatives of officials in the Kulob city government and prosecutor's office.

In Kazakhstan, a court in Shymkent sentenced 23-year-old Nurzhan Zhakipov to three years in prison for HT activities on March 2. In a March 3 report, Kazinform contrasted the Zhakipov case with another HT-related incident in November 2003: "Not long ago in Shymkent, Arysi, and a number of other regions in the southern Kazakhstan Okrug, some 20 HT members were tried. In November, they took to the streets for an unsanctioned demonstration in which their organization called for the overthrow of [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov's regime. They were fined 18,900 tenges [US$135] each; two participants who resisted arrest were sentenced to 10 days in jail. The majority of the people who have been 'nabbed' in connection with HT are poorly educated and ignorant. This is why Zhakipov so surprised the journalists at his trial - he is a man from an urban family who attended Soviet school and received a higher education ..." A March 5 report in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda noted that "while the recruitment activities of HT emissaries in Kazakhstan initially focused on low-income individuals, recent efforts have targeted potential members among government officials, law-enforcement authorities, well-off businessmen, intellectuals, and students".

In Kyrgyzstan, on February 17, a court in Bishkek sentenced two IMU members - both Uzbek citizens - to death for their role in a December 2002 explosion at a Bishkek market that killed seven people. A March 2 report in Vechernii Bishkek described how "unofficial" mullahs - possibly with HT ties - in the southern Aravan region were inculcating the tenets of radical Islam in young people. According to the report, if 100-120 young people in the area are receiving a religious education from "official clerics", an equal number is learning different lessons from what the article terms "nontraditionalists".

A March 1 report by Deutsche Welle focused on IMU members, many of whom fled to Pakistan after the US-led antiterrorist operation smashed the Taliban movement, and with it the IMU's stronghold in Afghanistan. According to the report, a group of approximately 120 militants has relocated to Pakistan's northern Balochistan province. The group consists of fighters from Central Asia, Tatarstan, ethnic Russian converts to Islam, and people from the Caucasus; many of them are IMU members. Operating in groups of 25-30, they have recently moved to mountainous regions of Pakistan, including the city of Quetta, capital of Balochistan province.

The same report featured an interview with a former IMU member, who said that the IMU's leaders now reside in Wana, Pakistan - scene of the recent Pakistani military operations to track down al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters seeking refuge in the tribal regions. The movement's key leader remains Tahir Yuldashev. His first deputy for financial affairs is Dilshod Hojiyev. The military commander is Ulug'bek Holik, who also goes under the name Mohammed Ayub. All of the men are originally from Uzbekistan's Namangan Oblast.

The IMU maintains a number of unofficial daftars, or offices, in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. An office in the Pakistani port city of Karachi handles financial contributions, primarily from Arab countries. According to the main source for the report, a 34-year-old Uzbek native of Navoiy Oblast who recently took advantage of an amnesty offer and returned home from Pakistan, the fighters also earn money on their own "through military operations financed by Pakistani special services against American forces in Afghanistan and through raids in Kashmir".

The source also told Deutsche Welle that a split had taken place in the IMU, with a group of combat-weary fighters rebelling against Yuldashev. In order to combat the dissenters, Yuldashev apparently summoned Ilhom Hojiyev, also known as Commander Abdurahmon, from Tajikistan. Ilhom Hojiyev is the cousin of Juma (aka Jumaboi) Namangani, the IMU military commander believed (not confirmed) to have been killed when the Taliban fell in late 2001.

In Uzbekistan itself, harsh measures against any hint of Islamist activity remain the order of the day, with courts routinely meting out long prison terms for any real or suspected HT involvement. But with severe restrictions on the media, the situation is difficult to gauge. Human rights organizations charge that some 5,000 political prisoners are better characterized as victims of a repressive regime than as wild-eyed Islamists intent on installing a fundamentalist regime of their own. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's role as a strategic partner of the United States in the "war on terror" has politicized the debate over the threat of radical Islam, often to the detriment of dispassionate analysis.

The main players: HT and the IMU
As the reports above indicate, Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU and are the primary organizations of concern in Central Asia.

The HT's rise to prominence in Central Asia marks a departure from the usual pattern for radical groups. Most groups achieve notoriety through the "propaganda of the deed", committing acts of terror or making obvious attempts to seize power. Instead, HT has drawn notice for its radical program and conspiratorial organizational structure. The organization's stated goals are the restoration of the caliphate and the establishment of strict Islamic law. It operates through a network of secretive party cells reminiscent of the underground network the Bolsheviks employed as they laid the groundwork for their successful seizure of power in Russia in 1917.

Founded in the early 1950s by Palestinians in Jordan, HT is today active in more than 30 countries worldwide, including Western Europe. It arrived in Central Asia in the mid-1990s, and is now active in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Only in the latter is it seen as having a possibly significant presence, however. According to a June 30 report by the International Crisis Group, "Estimates of [HT's] strength vary widely, but a rough figure is probably 15,000 to 20,000 throughout Central Asia."

As noted above, the perception of HT as a threat stems from the radical nature of the organization's program, which implies the overthrow of all of the region's current regimes. US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Elizabeth Jones, told the House Committee on International Relations on October 29: "[HT] is stridently anti-Western. Although there is no confirmed evidence of HT's involvement in violent actions as an organization, HT propaganda has praised martyrdom operations against Israel and called for attacks against coalition forces in Iraq. HT leaflets have also claimed that the United States and the United Kingdom are at war with Islam, and have called for all Muslims to defend the faith and engage in jihad against these countries. It seeks to replace the regimes of the region with a supranational Islamic caliphate."

The IMU has followed a more traditional path. Historian Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution provided a useful summary of the group's history and activities in her prepared statement to the above-mentioned House committee hearings: "The IMU was a self-proclaimed radical Islamic and political group, which was formed around 1997 by two ethnic Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley with the express goal of overthrowing the government of President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Having been expelled from Uzbekistan in the early 1990s, the two founders of the IMU [Juma Namangani, the group's military leader and a former Afghan veteran, and [Tahir Yuldashev], its political leader] followed the pattern of other Islamic militant leaders. They traveled variously and separately in Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates - as well as to Chechnya - and established contacts with Islamic movements, financial sources and intelligence services. After the 1996 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the IMU founders established close relations with Taliban leaders and were reported to have secured the support and financial backing of Osama bin Laden in their creation of the IMU.

"From 1997-2001, using the remote mountainous regions of Tajikistan as its base, the IMU carried out kidnappings, assassinations and other atrocities, including a series of armed raids deep into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that also targeted foreign visitors and tourists. Eventually, the IMU relocated its base of operations permanently to Afghanistan, extended its mandate to overthrow all regional governments - changing its name to the Islamic Party of Turkestan [IPT] - and threw in its lot with the Taliban. President [George W] Bush named the IMU as one of the terrorist movements linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network in his speech to Congress on September 20, 2001. At this juncture, reports from the region and Western intelligence sources put the numbers of IMU militants at between 3,000-5,000 ... It was only the US intervention in Afghanistan that curtailed IMU activities in Central Asia. The IMU's military commander was killed in action with the Taliban near Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan in November 2001, and its political leader went into hiding."

The threat: Real or imagined?
With the geographically isolated IMU still regrouping militarily and HT maintaining a policy of nonviolent organization-building, observers differ, sometimes profoundly, in their assessments. The majority view is that the increasingly repressive regimes in Central Asia, and in Uzbekistan in particular, themselves pose the greatest threat to regional stability by creating ideally wretched conditions to nurture an implacably radical opposition. Meanwhile, a vocal minority insists that the IMU, HT, and perhaps other movements that have yet to catch the public eye, still represent the gravest danger.

Examples of the former view abound. In her prepared statement to the House committee, Fiona Hill wrote: "I would suggest that harsh government repression of dissent is as much, if not more, of a threat to Central Asian stability today and in the immediate future as the radical Islamic movements ..."

Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, seconded this view in her own prepared statement: "The Central Asian elites are exaggerating the threat to the state that is posed by those advocating radical Islamic ideologies, and US policymakers will be making a grave mistake if they allow shared goals in the 'war on terror' to blind us to the short-sighted and potentially dangerous policies that are being pursued in the region with regards to religion."

In a spring 2003 article in the Journal of International Affairs, Edward W Walker wrote: "There is little risk that Islamists will come to power in the region soon, especially now that the collapse of the Taliban means Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven. The greater risk is that Central Asia's ruling elites will use the specter of Islamism as an excuse to avoid economic and political reforms that would mitigate the conditions under which militant Islamism takes root and survives."

A December 22, 2003 study by the International Crisis Group titled "Is Radical Islam Inevitable in Central Asia: Priorities for Engagement", suggested a similar conclusion. The study warned that "if Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are to avoid the fate of other countries in which terrorist or extremist movements have emerged ... it is imperative to build open political systems ... Authoritarian regimes relying on fear and repression, while stifling individual freedoms will only discredit democracy and push people to act outside constitutional frameworks."

This view is not universally held. In his prepared statement to the House committee, Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation noted the unsavory nature of the region's authoritarian regimes without defining it as the most pressing danger. Instead, he stressed that "anti-Americanism, extremism and preaching the violent overthrow of existing regimes make Hizb ut-Tahrir a prime suspect in the next wave of violent action in Central Asia ...." He concluded: "Hizb ut-Tahrir represents a growing medium and long-term threat to geopolitical stability and the secular regimes of Central Asia and ultimately poses a potential threat to other regions of the world. It seeks to overthrow and destroy existing regimes and establish a Sharia-based caliphate. Hizb may launch terrorist attacks against US targets and allies, operating either alone or in cooperation with other global terror groups such as al-Qaeda. A Hizb takeover of any Central Asian state could provide the global radical terror movement with a geographic base and access to the expertise and technology to manufacture weapons of mass destruction."

Prospects and conclusions
Even those observers who disagree on the extent of the Islamist threat generally concur that the current drift of the region's regimes is less than encouraging. In fact, the leitmotif of recent writing on radical Islam in Central Asia is the following contradiction: writers insist that the best remedy for Central Asia's ailments is to strengthen civil society, pursue economic reforms, encourage greater political participation, expand basic freedoms and improve socioeconomic conditions for the populace; yet the same writers glumly conclude that the dominant trend is movement in the opposite direction. Conditions are worsening - slowly in countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and with gathering speed in Uzbekistan.  World Peace.

But the miserable conditions that observers note are not particular to Central Asia. Sadly, many of the world's countries are dismal places ruled by dingy regimes. Those places where Islamist movements have come to power - Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, for example - have suffered from pervasive misgovernment, gross socioeconomic inequalities, and a dearth of basic freedoms. But many other nations labor under similar curses, and Islamists have had scant success in exploiting them to their advantage.

In fact, the single greatest failure of the Islamist movement to date is its inability to fashion a global movement to match its global agenda. In Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, indigenous movements came to power with indigenous agendas under particularly favorable indigenous conditions. Though their stated aims at times extended beyond their borders, these dissimilar movements proved largely incapable of expanding their influence beyond the ethnic, sectarian, linguistic and state boundaries in which they arose.

This fact has not been lost on Central Asia's regimes. Even Uzbekistan, the most heavy-handed among them in its repression of Islamist activity, hammers away at this tension between the national and the supranational in its official anti-Islamist propaganda. For example, an article in Uzbek on the pro-government website takes an explicitly nationalist stance against HT's pan-Islamic program: "According to HT's strategy, Uzbek territory that was acquired [for Islam] through 'a jihad war' is not Uzbek territory; rather, the Uzbek people have the right to use those lands. The right to exercise sovereignty over Uzbekistan's territory would, according to their ideology, belong to the centralized structure of the reconstituted Islamic caliphate ... [HT supporters] say prayers, fast, and know a few lines of the Koran, but they have no profound knowledge of the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Nevertheless, they claim that their ideas represent absolute truth. These self-proclaimed 'defenders and armies of Islam' appear to be marionettes in the hands of those who hope to Arabize Central Asia."

But if pan-Islamic movements have often foundered on contradictions between the national and supranational, this failure does not in and of itself consign radical groups with supranational aims to the ash heap of history. The global terrorist international as exemplified by al-Qaeda, for example, has proved itself capable of mounting destructive attacks in diverse locations. It is here that conditions in Central Asia are particularly worrisome. In an October 2001 article in Prospect (No 68), Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recalls: "I gained certain insights into the roots of Muslims extremism during my work as a stringer for The Times in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1980s - not only through meeting some precursors of the Taliban among the Afghan mujahideen, but among radical groups in Pakistan. I especially remember a long conversation with some young members of a 'fundamentalist' group in Lahore. Some of them came from longstanding Lahori families, others from recent migrants from the countryside. None were from the bottom of society. Instead, they came from that classic breeding ground of fascistic and religious extremism, the proud but struggling lower middle class and actual or former upper peasantry.

"They were under threat not only of sinking into the immiserated, semi-employed proletariat ... but of only being able to escape and rise through entry into the junior ranks of organized crime, and especially heroin smuggling ... In these depressing circumstances, adherence to a radical Islamist network provided a sense of cultural security, a new community and some degree of social support - modest, but still better than anything the state can provide."  WorldPeace is one word.

In his prepared statement to the House committee, Stephen Blank, a professor of national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, disputed arguments linking poverty and extremism, echoing Lieven's comments: "We have rarely seen that the Islamist parties or movements or their recruits are the result of the kind of poverty and societal degradation that we find in Central Asia. If anything we find the opposite, that these recruits are often from educated upwardly mobile backgrounds whose ascent is somehow blocked or 'cramped' by the structure of the existing society ..."

It is in this context that one notes with some concern the anecdotal evidence of better-educated and better-connected recruits to HT. HT itself does not appear to represent an imminent threat to the entrenched regimes of Central Asia, nor does it seem to have a coherent blueprint for achieving its radical goals. But its increasing ability to draw a new class of adherents, if confirmed by further evidence, may indicate that HT is on the verge of an organizational breakthrough, or that it may soon serve as a stepping stone to more direct, and possibly more destructive, forms of extremist activity.

The preceding suggests that observers need to move from general questions about the "threat of radical Islam in Central Asia" to specific queries about the precise numbers and backgrounds of new sympathizers, as well as any ties between existing organizations like HT and other groups with a more proactive agenda. Though some information is available, too much of it stems from media controlled or hobbled by regimes with a vested interest in presenting a specific version of a "threat" that they can then exploit for their own purposes. The information needed to answer the questions posed above cannot be gleaned from tidy reports of varying veracity; it must often be obtained the old-fashioned way - on the shifting ground where it first emerges. From our present vantage point, the availability such vital information may well be the most pressing issue of all.

(Compiled by Daniel Kimmage.)

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